Sunday, December 30, 2018

Age of Consent [dir. Michael Powell]

Michael Powell, especially in conjunction with his partner Emeric Pressburger, made films across genres and in a variety of styles, but in each film there was a unified vision, a fidelity to the theme that marked their genius. Even in Powell's solo output, Peeping Tom was a product of that same consistency of design. Which is why I find Age of Consent somewhat puzzling.

There's the central story of a aging jaded painter trying to find himself again and the young (underage, the film repeatedly reminds us) girl who becomes his muse, and in the process discovers her own womanhood. This is done with an admirable delicacy of touch and aided by the involved acting from James Mason and a very brave Helen Mirren in their respective parts (of course the sense of taboo is mitigated by the fact that the frequently naked Helen doesn't look remotely like the underage girl she is supposed to be, or perhaps that was just the gin-soaked tyrant grandmother's attempt to delude the girl and rein her in as a continued source of income).
 
What jars here is the mixture of the bawdy comedy track, majorly from the scenes with Jack MacGowran as a money and "bird"-fancying moocher. It seems at odds with the central narrative, looking more like an attempt to inject some crowd-pleasing laughs to keep the film from becoming too serious. The film is otherwise fine in its low-key manner (very low-key, I thought the death of a certain character would have more melodramatic consequences, and the film ends all too abruptly, leaving pertinent questions about the equation between the painter and the girl unanswered). There's terrific location and underwater photography capturing the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef, and a hypnotic score by Peter Sculthorpe. And yes, a terrific performance by the dog Lonsdale that plays Mason's companion Godfrey (Powell was apparently miffed that none of the critics at the time mentioned the dog in their reviews).

The credits specify that "Miss Mirren is a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company", probably to establish her respectability and discourage anyone only interested in the naughty bits.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

2018's Journey in Movies

Unlike what some cranky geriatrics might say, there are a good number of interesting and/or entertaining movies made these days too, and testament to this is the strong slate of movies that kept me engaged this year, whether at the cinema or on streaming and home video. Concentrating only on movies produced this year I present to you my list of:
 
THE THUMBS-UPS

Black Panther - A fun action-packed superhero movie that holds its own and in fact manages to mostly avoid the cookie cutter feel of other Marvel adaptations. The first half feels more like a James Bond adventure (if Bond had access to a Crysis-style exosuit).

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero - It would have been more apt to call BJS 'Bhavesh Begins' because this vigilante hero origin story is a fitting companion piece to Chris Nolan's Batman Begins. BJS is notable for the grounded manner in which most of the action is set. The film is also to be praised for its non-stereotypic exploration of Mumbai and its surroundings, raising issues that mainstream cinema will not acknowledge. Slack editing, a half-baked romance angle and mostly cardboard villains bring down the experience, but the reasonably unique approach to the vigilante hero genre is worth a watch.

Annihilation - I haven't read Jeff Vandermeer's book, the film comes across as a mix of Stalker the film and STALKER the game. Its best elements for me were purely visual, with some gorgeous artistry on display. I'd definitely recommend as a watch.

Carbon - A gripping and visually ravishing tale of one man's obsessive quest for (fool's?) gold, evoking comparison to Herzog classics like Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo. Excellent direction and a strong lead performance from middle-of-the-road Malayalam cinema's hot favorite Fahadh Faasil. Damn, why couldn't this have come out on blu-ray?

The Incredibles 2 - This one turned out, all things considered, as good as the first film...which automatically makes it about 3 zillion times better than most superhero movies of recent times.

Manto - Biopic of author SH Manto. While the script does simplify the complexities of the author's personality and distill his life as a vehicle to discuss issues of religious hatred and censorship, Nawazuddin does an amazing job as the flawed and tormented writer and Rasika Duggal who played Manto's wife Safia is wonderful. Lots of great cameos from seasoned actors.

Andhadhun - Overall not on the same scale of greatness as Johnny Gaddaar, on account of the twists in the second half falling into the territory of "kuch bhi!", but yeah this is probably Sriram Raghavan's most FUN movie after JG. Ayushmann Khurana and Tabu totally rock their parts. Don't read any detailed reviews or synopses beforehand, just see andhadhun.

Tumbbad - IMO the best Indian horror movie ever, with a strong script and incredibly good shadowy visuals and great sound design. Focused direction and a defining performance from Sohum Shah (who also produced the film and stayed committed to its making over a period of several years). Also excellent staged CGI for the budget.

Badhaai Ho - There is little that feels new and much that appears contrived in this tale of a mother of significantly older children discovering that she is pregnant again and deciding to go on with it. But I was hooked. It was mainly the performances that worked, Neena Gupta and Gajraj Singh look the part of a long-time middle-class couple and their interaction has a warmth that overcomes cliche.

Wildlife - Paul Dano's family drama with Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan is captured with restraint and quiet attention to detail. Its impact is limited, ironically because of its civility; the script never tries to probe the wound of family discord or seriously discomfit the viewer with the emotional angst of the characters, but with steady direction and strong acting a very respectable effort it is.

Ballad of Buster Scruggs - In a series of unrelated episodes set in the West represented in old-school Hollywood, the Coen Bros anthology (co-produced by Netflix) seem to pay tribute to masters like John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, and hell, even animator Tex Avery. Over the various courses of this banquet, the tone goes from hilarious to stirring to romantic and a dash of the macabre. I won't spoil it any more save to say that I enjoyed myself thoroughly and look forward to revisiting it. Entertainer of the Year!

Manta Ray - This Thai directorial debut (Phuttiphong Aroonpheng) was a slow but engaging and eventually hypnotic blend of reality and fantasy, highly reminiscent of the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee, Cemetery of Splendour).The beauty of the film is in its rhythm and its evocative mix of real and imagined elements, coming across as a fable of sorts. And towards the end there are some sequences that are rapturous pure audio-visual experiences. This is a brilliant assured debut from a maker whose future work I will be looking forward to.

Endhiran / Robot 2.0 - The middling reviews of this movie were right about stuff in-between the action being dull filler but what they don't tell you is that there is very little footage that is not badass action or imaginative VFX. While it has less rewatch value, this movie is in overall feel like Pacific Rim - dumb but awesome. For anyone who understands Tamil, that version is clearly superior. It also has very good 3D, with solid depth and some excellent front projection.

Roma - Alfonso 'Gravity' Cuaron's latest film (produced by Netflix) deals with the life of a housemaid and the family she works for in Mexico. It takes a while to feel immersed with the characters, and sometimes the technique is a little overwhelming for the actual scene, but it turns out a brilliant and compassionate portrayal of the humanistic bond between the characters, the parallels that run in the lives of mistress and servant. The scene at the beach towards the end is nerve-wracking and cathartic. Highly recommended.

AND THE CLUNKERS

Avengers: Infinity War - The overwhelming feeling I had all through this movie was one of weariness. I got BORED of seeing stuff blow up and huge things come crashing down. The dialog is caught between dull exposition and desperate attempts to inject humor. There is absolutely no sparkle here.

Raazi - It's not as jingoistic as some of the worst offenders in the patriotic movie genre, but that's about the only good thing I can say about it. Bad writing and direction, give this Raazi a Razzie.

MI: Fallout - The action sequences are done efficiently and the final scene at the cliff carries some genuine vertigo-triggering thrills but the connective tissue between the set-pieces is unbelievably poor. No one seems to have given a thought as to making the script interesting or even bear a decent degree of coherence. Good humor is all about pacing, but that's lacking here. Worse, the dialog seems to have been written by amateur drama kids given a 5-min deadline, and the actors simply cannot make it work.

Saheb, Biwi & Gangster 3 - Even with a few okay moments courtesy returning actors Jimmy Shergill and Mahie (No Sher for you)Gill and unintentional laughs from a hilariously out-of-place (and likely drunk) Sanjay Dutt, this one is on the whole a whacking big turd.

Stree - The stray amusing quip aside, 'Stree' was such a load of cock it might as well have been called 'Purush'. The script is so poor and lazy even the brilliant cast can only occasionally raise it above the doldrums. Two thumbs down.

Blackkklansman - I suspect if Quentin Tarantino had made this film, Spike Lee would have been railing at him for being patronizing / exploitative towards the struggles of the black movement against white oppression. Unlike (the wholly fictitious) Inglourious Basterds this film is not able to take its preposterous narrative and milk its potential to create genuine tension in the narrative and empathy with the characters.

In Fabric - I did not immediately enjoy the new film from Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio, Duke of Burgundy). It begins well enough as a haunted object tale , but the film's tone is all over the place and its sense of humor never seems comfortably seated. I feel I could give this another try sometime in the future, but on the whole my first viewing left me dissatisfied.

Thugs of Hindostan - I thought I’d seen an okay if VERY bland homage to the multi-starrer masala movie, with a few touches - like the Bachchan homages to Coolie, Mard and Aakhree Raasta - it didn't really capitalize on. Then to my (most unpleasant) surprise, instead of ‘The End’ it said ‘Intermission’. Bloody Hell!

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Swimmer [dir. Frank Perry]

The late 60's and early 70's were a time many kinds of weird interesting anti-establishment movies could get made in the studio system, especially if you had a bit of star power in the cast or director's chair. For star power, one could hardly get better than Burt Lancaster. Although 50+ at the time of this film, Burt was in excellent physical form and his animal magnetism still a force to reckon with. Better still, he was an intensely intelligent actor (if also someone likely to impose his own ideas) and interested in the part.

Even though it stretches out (sometimes rather obviously) to feature length, The Swimmer clearly shows its roots in the (John Cheever) short story, beginning abruptly with Ned Merrill (Lancaster) walking out of the woods and diving into a neighbor's pool. In the conversation that follows we perceive Ned as someone admired and even envied by his jaded neighbors, a picture of health and success nurturing an ideal family, yet retaining a youth's sense of wonder and hunger for life. Plotting a course of private swimming pools that go all the way up to his home in the hills, Ned improviso decides to swim the whole route, which he fondly names the River Lucinda (after his wife).

The swimmer's journey begins pleasantly enough as he is hailed by amused neighbors. We see Ned as retaining the liberated romantic soul his friends have lost in time. Subtly the narrative shifts. When Ned meets a grown-up girl that was once babysitter to his children he invites her to share his journey, their playful interaction (including an indulgent steeple-jumping sequence) eventually leading to a darker space. In a telling bit of symbolism, Ned's first stumble from the wholesome American Dream image coincides with his spraining an ankle. Bit by bit, the cracks in his face of contentment appear. Some of the neighbors hate Ned, some view him with scorn. The man we once see racing alongside a horse gains a more pronounced limp. Scene by scene, pool by pool, our impressions of Ned as the figure of envy wear down, reducing him eventually to wretched pity. As Roger Ebert points out in his trenchant review, Burt Lancaster is the right actor for the part because he is the hero whose aura generates the tragedy in his fall.

The film's theme may be interpreted in different ways. It would appear that the neighbors farthest away from Ned's home (and assumedly the goings-on of his life) are the ones most invested in his charisma, and as he moves nearer, the uglier truth is revealed. It may also be seen as the externalization of a nervous breakdown: At the beginning of the film we are seeing Ned's own image of himself, and as time passes, the illusion strips away to horrifying realization of of his true pathetic self - Ned could well be the ghost that didn't know he was dead.

Apparently, Lancaster (passionate enough about the project to fund the last day's filming from his own pocket) and director Frank Perry had conflicting ideas during the shoot and the film certainly carries some of that turmoil (Sydney Pollack conducted an uncredited reshoot of a scene in which Frank meets a former flame). That's not bad in itself, because it is in some way a reflection of the torment growing in Ned's mind in the course of his aquatic odyssey. The film's lush style (both in its glamorous depiction of upper-class suburbia and in Marvin Hamlisch's baroque score) is a brilliant counter-point to its sordid undercurrent. For all its flaws and indulgences and backroom battles, The Swimmer is a grand Experiment (with a capital E) worked by passionate people and deserving of a larger appraisal.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

2.0 [dir. Shankar]

While the trailer of 2.0 aka Endhiran / Robot 2 had moments of significant interest, I was not very hopeful of the end product. Shankar's last movie was crap. And let's face it, 'Superstar' Rajini isn't getting any younger. Even with the layers of pancake, and rather obvious wigs and fake goatees he looks like someone's grandpa at a fancy dress party - a simple shot showing his character slapping water on the face has to be haphazardly edited because it would be a make-up disaster. The pairing with Akshay Kumar (who ironically plays a geriatric nagging crank bird-lover) is a purely commercial exercise to draw in the Hindi audiences as well to diffuse the risk of this stratospheric budget movie. The reviews, including from my favorite critic Baradwaj Rangan were middling as well, suggesting that everything between the action and VFX is immensely boring and turgid.

Well, the reviews are right about the in-between stuff being dull filler, but what they don't tell you is that, apart from a testing flashback sequence in which the baddie Akshay Kumar character spells out his bird-brained motivation, there is very little footage that is not badass action or spectacular VFX. Again technically, the graphicsdon't have the same level of pixel perfect polish as your MCU or Star Wars movies, but they're a hell lot better than Bahuballyhoo, and Shankar's imagination as a visual director remains unparalleled. The action and VFX scenes in this movie are way more exciting than most stuff I've seen in Hollywood movies in recent years. In terms of inspiration this movie is like Terminator meets Transformers meets Avengers/JL, and without the bloat of those movies. While Rajinikant is ho-hum in his nice guy parts, he seems to find a special glee in playing Evil Chitti (and another character who I shall not spoil here), since it probably comes as such a relief to the goody-goody characters he has been restricted to play once he became a big star. And he gets to mouth several hilarious quips (at least some of the puns and allusions work only for Tamil movie goers, don't know how they are substituted in the Hindi version). This movie is in overall feel like Pacific Rim - really dumb but really awesome.

I saw it in Tamil 2D at the local screen with about a dozen people total in the auditorium, let me see if I can catch the 3D version as well.